When I was assigned to take photos of the rubble around the Drum and Bell Towers, I had no idea what I was in for. Although I have been living around the Gulou area for three years, it had been some time since I had passed through the hutongs that snaked around the ancient structures. The last time I was there, it was lively. Queues of rickshaw drivers threatened to knock me off the path, badminton was everywhere, tourists flocked in and out of the countless cafes, bars, and shops.
This area was part of my favorite walking paths in Beijing just before sundown because, amazingly, it was the only place in the city I knew that could be buzzing, yet somehow, slow paced.
My fond memories don’t have much weight against those of the residents who have spent years in this area and now have had their fears realized, witnessing their homes and restaurants get tacked with demolition notices.
I asked Dustin Duan of Excuse Coffee, who has taken over Zajia Cafe (which will thankfully remain untouched) during daytime hours, whether or not the lots would be used for an underground shopping mall, like what has been previously assumed and protested. Duan’s shop has been torn down, unlike its neighbors, Au Goulot and Drum and Bell Bar, but he says it’s only a matter of time. He says it’s expected that the area will be transformed into a "courtyard" space, used primarily for offices, residences, and small restaurants and bars because that will ultimately be worth more money. It will be made to look "old", he says.
"They hope that 200 years from now, this area can look like an antique again," he says. "But they won’t reveal exactly what it’s going to be. They can’t. If they did, people would fight it."
Wrecking was in progress as I wandered around, snapping what remained of the rubble. I wasn’t the only one taking photos either. A few others had joined me, hoping to preserve what was left on their cameras. Residents who have been the last to leave stubbornly played mahjong outside their blocked off courtyard. Unknowing kids made the most of the unattended and overgrown lot.
Meanwhile, a lone rickshaw driver asked if people wanted tours of old Beijing.
This post first appeared on thebeijinger.com on July 30, 2014
Photos: Jessica Rapp